The District has a cosmopolitan patina, but beneath the surface, it's still mostly Southern. And as in the South, most residents to varying degrees like their politicians up close and personal. In Ward 8, that's more a necessity than a stylistic penchant. The area has one of the city's lowest literacy rates. Many people don't read the major newspapers. Others come home drained from work. They have little time for civic engagement; a politician has to come to them. "I bet you The Washington Post probably sells fewer papers here than anywhere else in the city," Pannell said to me. "And people in Ward 8 aren't watching Reporter's Notebook [on cable Channel 16]. They aren't listening to Mark Plotkin or you and Kojo [Nnamdi] on the radio."
Many Ward 8 residents get their news the old-fashioned way -- by word of mouth. So the bearer of the news becomes critical. They have to trust that person. Few people east of the river trust the government, the police, or Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
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To many residents east of the river, Williams is a foreigner. I came to understand the importance of this perception after reflecting on some comments my sister made to me once when I went home to New Orleans to visit. She told me, "You don't even talk like you are from here." I knew then that there was a disconnect between us. People in Ward 8 feel about Williams the way my sister feels about me. He doesn't speak their language. "Anytime he comes to this ward, he has to read a script," says Pannell. "And it's a terribly written speech that doesn't connect with anyone."
That barrier is complicated by the perceptions of an unfriendly government handing out the economic spoils to everyone everywhere -- except east of the river. "Our current mayor is perceived as not being friendly to people," says Gray.
Barry, on the other hand, speaks the language of Ward 8. "A large number of people who feel disillusioned voted for Marion Barry because he makes them feel good," says Ward 8's Kinlow. "He makes people feel valuable -- a handshake, a conversation. He's a genuine old-style politician."
By contrast, some people believe that incumbent Sandy Allen lost her way, forgetting her roots and failing to communicate with her constituents. "It was just like Charlene," says Ward 8 resident Don Matthews, referring to former council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who represented Ward 4 for 17 years. "She got up there with the big boys and forgot about the people." Something similar might be said about Kevin Chavous in Ward 7. Some residents there complained that he spent too little time in their communities. Like their neighbors in Ward 8 -- although with less intensity -- they complained about inadequate economic development, a lack of affordable housing and the government's failure to hear their voices.
None of this is new, of course. I recorded many of these same complaints when I covered Barry's 1992 council election. Then, it was council member Wilhelmina Rolark and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly who were out of touch, unable to speak the language of the people, offering programs harmful to the low-income. Then as now, the poor and working-class saw their government as the enemy, not as an ally in their quest to rise to the middle class. Then as now, Barry was seen as the quintessential communicator, the person they could trust to articulate their needs and advocate for them, to rescue them from the stranglehold of poverty.
But he did little to alter the culture that handicaps the ward, preventing it from thriving and becoming the jewel east of the river that it could be. Perhaps even the people of Ward 8 recognize some of that now. A remarkable thing to keep in mind is how few actually voted for Barry this time around. Only 8,261 out of 31,516 registered Democrats in the ward even went to the polls. Of that number, Barry won 4,728 -- far fewer than he received in his two most recent primary races, for mayor in 1994 and council in 1992 -- and Allen received 2,061. The numbers reveal it all: both the extent of voter apathy that prevails in the ward, and Barry's diminishing popularity even among those who still embrace him.
This time around, if Barry really wanted to be serious about the job he's been given, he could become the Bill Cosby of Ward 8, preaching the bootstrap theology, advocating for more parental responsibility and less government dependency. He could serve as master translator, helping his low-income constituents express their needs to the government and helping the government clarify its programs effectively for citizens who need them. He could help them prepare for the 21st century.
Whether he does that will reveal which story Barry feels is more important: the politician's or the people's.
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Jonetta Rose Barras is a political analyst with WAMU-FM radio and author of "The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders" (Bancroft Press).